A New Book On Nrupender Rao And His Laurels
It's a story of an entrepreneur who returns home and ends up building an organisation that will generate mass employment.
Senior Journalist Pavan C Lall's latest book, 'Forging Mettle: The Nrupender Rao and the Pennar Story', tells the story of how a business built with ethics, social responsibility, and environmental concern can indeed be profitable and sustainable.
In 1987, Nrupender Rao bought the loss-making Pennar Steels in the hope of turning it profitable. Today, the Pennar Group has established itself in multiple diversified ventures.
BQ Prime spoke with the author about his motivations behind the book.
Edited excerpts from the interview.
Tell us in detail about Forging Mettle?
The book is an unusual story about an entrepreneur who wants to return to his home country and ends up building an organisation that will generate mass employment, economic sustainability, and in general add value to the overall fabric of society in India. In many ways, the spirit of what the protagonist of the book—Nrupender Rao of Pennar—is trying to achieve is no different from what the country is trying to achieve today. Along Rao’s journey, there is a hint of alchemy that transpires as he encounters highs and lows, wins and losses, and the constant fork in the road as to the sort of company he wants to build. There are deeper business management lessons that will become evident to the reader, but as an example, the unrelenting focus on looking after people in a large organisation is one factor that was ahead of its time. It is something that even today, in the name of ESG (Environment, Social, and Governance), is being underscored as integral to the credibility of any company.
Why did you specifically decide to write about Nrupender Rao and Pennar?
My first two books were about corporate misdoings and white-collar criminals—basically, about how the corporate world was being ransacked by ‘robber barons.’
In that sense, Forging Mettle was an opportunity to do something entirely different for multiple reasons. For starters, the founder of Pennar, Nrupender Rao, is a character who comes from a political background. Instead of following the family business, he decided to go the academic route. He got a degree from IIT and then took that further by going to the USA to get another advanced degree, even working there for a large American corporation. He decided to return not to run the family business or to join politics like his father but instead to work under another large corporate in India before deciding to go the technocrat way and start his own venture. Of course, he then runs into his own set of challenges and problems, none of which he has shied away from talking about, which led me to get the sense that this was a story with a sense of realism. Finally, one of my editors at Business Standard, AK Bhattacharya, once told me that there was a wealth of stories that needed to be preserved and written as a matter of corporate history across the board and that it was a matter of journalistic shame that not many were doing it. That struck a chord and served as a trigger. Also, Nrupender Rao was suffering from a debilitating neurological condition that has impeded his ability to speak, which made the telling of his story difficult but also served as a challenge for me to attempt.
Is there anything that surprised you while you were writing the book?
As a matter of fact, yes, lots. The fact that everything has changed in the world of manufacturing and business and also that nothing has changed. One still has to deal with unions, as then as now; one still has to be very mindful of local employment and their sensibilities; one still has to contend with the fact that India is very much a collection of little countries and each state is like a different nation; and success in one state may not always guarantee the same in another. Most of all, I think the real learning came from the fact that when purpose rather than profit is pursued, real change happens. As trite as that may sound, it’s true. Rao, for example, wanted to create mass-scale employment, something India is still wanting to do ad infinitum. And while he may have fallen short of his own personal targets, he did indeed spur other entrepreneurs who worked for him to do the same, thus achieving his goals, albeit indirectly.
How are the protagonist's management lessons different from those of the other leaders we hear about?
His journey was, of course, a seesaw with ups and downs. Interestingly, his sense of spirituality guides him through that maze. At the end of the rainbow, there’s a set of exemplary values that need to be adhered to: education, employment creation, and people first. Example: A union leader walked into Rao’s office and threw the lunch plate violently on his desk and exclaimed that the food wasn’t good enough—how could they be expected to eat it? Most executives would have security come in and remove the man. Rao asked the man to sit down, took point-by-point notes on what was wrong, and discussed how they could improve the menu. By the end of the chat, the union leader was apologising.
What’s the one lesson you want readers to take away from this book?
The best laid plans will unravel, but one still must go on with the race, and a leader must be a dealer in hope. At the end of the day, people are what form all and any organisations, even for a technocrat. The eternal lesson that any entrepreneur has to learn is that you have to also be there for them when the chips are down. Ultimately, Pennar has crossed the chasm, is profitable, and has achieved a sense of staying power. None of that came easily.